Arts & Entertainment | May 6, 2021 9:34 am

Unpacking the Obvious, Oft-Overlooked Misogyny of the “Your Mom” Joke

"Your Mom" jokes may be too obvious and too silly to actually offend, but they're still based on underlying sexism

Rapper on stage under blue and purple stage lights, pointing out at audience
Your mom is so stupid, she probably doesn't even grasp the underlying sexism of this joke.
Mike Powell

I’ve been thinking a lot about your mom lately. Not your mom, specifically — I don’t know the dame — but “your mom,” the anonymous matriarch who is at once everyone’s mother and no one’s, the subject, butt and sometimes even punchline of the “Your Mom” joke. 

Some version of this joke has been around “pretty much as long as there have been mamas,” says Harmon Leon, a comedian, author and host of the podcast, Comedy History101. Leon traces the earliest known evidence of a proto-”Your Mom” joke back to at least 3500 B.C.E., when someone inscribed a maternal dis into a Babylonian tablet. Skipping ahead a bit, jokes at the expense of people’s mothers were also scattered throughout the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare, though what brought the “Your Mom” joke into its more recognizable modern context were the the “Yo Mama” jokes popularized by the game “The Dozens” in the early part of the 20th century. The game, notes Leon, was popular within African American communities, and consisted of two participants simply trading insults back and forth — rap battle style — until one gave up. “Disparaging comments about one’s family members is a common component of The Dozens,” says Harmon, and naturally, mothers became a primary target. 

Indeed, “Your Mom” jokes, like the “Yo Mama” jokes before them, have their origins in the grand tradition of the maternal insult — which, in turn, has its own origins in the far grander tradition of misogyny. In its most basic form, the “Your Mom” joke is just an insult about someone’s mother. “The central conceit is, it makes fun of someone’s mother,” Leon explains. “It’s rooted in filial piety — touching on the taboo of being disrespectful of parents.”

“I think mom jokes are funny because they violate a taboo. You’re not supposed to talk about people’s mothers,” echoes Mark Peters, a humorist and author of Bullshit: A Lexicon. ”You can stab me in the heart with a pitchfork, but do not insult my mother.”

In general, however, we’re pretty willing to overlook the sexism at the heart of the “Your Mom” joke, arguably because the insults such jokes contain are so obviously exaggerated it’s clear they aren’t meant to offend at all. Attempting to unpack the enduring humor of the “Your Mom” joke in an article for Psychology Today back in 2014, Peters called the jokes, “the verbal equivalent of a noogie, a whoopie cushion or a tap on someone’s shoulder to make them look. They’re harmless verbal pranks that demonstrate friendship.”

Writing about “Your Mom” jokes for Vice in 2016, Jack Blocker admitted that he’d “never really considered” that “this brand of humor is totally sexist,” though he did add that his failure to do so was “to his discredit.” Once again, however, the “Your Mom” joke was defended by the argument that the jokes and the insults they depend on are by definition so obvious and so stupid that they are not really about anyone’s mom at all. As author Lucy Greeves told Blocker, “The mother isn’t present as an individual — the mother’s only present as a kind of symbol” within the ritualized format of the traditional “Your Mom” joke.

To be fair, some modern applications of the “Your Mom” joke do represent a devolution to such a point of absurdity that they truly aren’t about women anymore at all. Take Peters’ Twitter account, @CNNYourMom, which he describes as “nothing but Mad Libs-style mother jokes” in which he simply inserts the phrase “Your Mom” into existing news headlines. 

“When I was doing @CNNyourmom every day, I was definitely exploring absurdity — or meta-jokes, I guess, jokes about jokes,” says Peters. “An absurd or meta joke isn’t really about anybody’s mom at all. If I create the headline, ‘Your Mom Could Be Recycled Into Cleaner Electric Car Batteries,’ I’m pretty far from reality, I hope.”

Barring this level of abstraction, however, Peters says he’s now much more aware of the sexism implied in the traditional “Your Mom” joke. “They definitely are rooted in misogyny, much like blonde jokes, which are really women jokes. I think mom jokes only work today if they’re relocated into a place of absurdity.”

What makes “Your Mom” jokes sexist isn’t that you’re insulting someone’s mother, or even mothers in general. They’re not sexist because moms are (typically) women and it’s inherently sexist to insult any woman (it’s not). What makes “Your Mom” jokes sexist — and what makes it difficult for us to see them as such — is the deeply internalized misogyny at the heart of the patriarchal structures and belief systems on which these jokes hinge. Whether or not we actually take offense at the insult in a “Your Mom” joke, we have to recognize that an insult has indeed been issued for the joke to work. Moreover, we have to accept that the person on the receiving end of this joke should be offended on behalf of their mother — because the butt of a “Your Mom” joke isn’t really the anonymous, maybe even symbolic, mother in question, but the offspring of this ugly/fat/promiscuous/stupid woman. 

The “Your Mom” joke, then, hinges on the belief that one can be shamed for the perceived flaws or shortcomings of their mother, that the societal shame directed at women can be inherited. This seems to reflect a dated, patriarchal archetype in which women — especially mothers — are expected to be unimpeachably pure models of idealized femininity, and that any failure to do so brings shame upon their families, especially the men in them. Throw in the fact that these jokes often insult the mother on the basis of her being fat or sexually promiscuous, and you’ve got a perfect intersection of problematic humor.

These deeply entrenched patriarchal structures even underlie “Your Mom” jokes in which no direct insult is actually delivered. In modern usage, the “Your Mom” joke has largely devolved from the direct, hyperbolic insult of the “Yo Momma” joke. Today, the mere phrase, “Your mom,” is a two-word joke in the spirit of “That’s what she said,” a fragmented reply that becomes a joke based on the context in which it is delivered. Also like “That’s what she said,” a well-placed “Your mom” almost always suggests sexual promiscuity on the part of the woman in question. More specifically, it often implies that the speaker, himself, has had sex with the woman. (Sometimes in a well-timed crossover joke, the usually anonymous “she” of “That’s what she said” is “your mom.”)

Again, even in this slightly more abstracted form, the joke depends on the recognition that an insult has been delivered, even if we’re not intended to actually take offense. And, once again, that’s where the sexism comes in. After all, what’s so insulting about having had sex with someone’s mom?

In addition to shaming female sexuality, of course, it goes back to patriarchal notions of women as men’s sexual property — with a Freudian twist. As Ivan Ward, Head of Learning at the Freud Museum in London, told Blocker for Vice: “Boys feel they have to protect their mothers from their fathers. This Oedipal dynamic is transposed into the adult situation when you’re worried about your mother’s reputation.” To assert that you’ve fucked someone else’s mother, then, is to proclaim you’ve violated their property by sullying their mother’s reputation.

What’s interesting about the implied insult here is that it actually works both ways. If I call you a “motherfucker,” that’s an insult — some might say the mother of them all. But if you suggest you fucked my mom, joke’s on me. 

Also interesting is that you don’t usually hear anyone calling women “fatherfuckers,” even when we are. This may actually be what makes “Your Mom” jokes sexist in the classic sense of the word, as in, what makes them a true double standard. As Greeves told Vice, “The sexism comes because women don’t make ‘your daddy’ jokes,” though that may be changing.

As I’ve previously written, there’s a growing community of young women who have built a comedic brand online based on tongue-in-cheek posts about dating — and fucking — older men, be they daddies in the literal or merely figurative sense. These jokes don’t typically assume a parallel “Your dad” format, but there’s often a similar quality of subversion at play, an implied assertion of power. I, myself, am often tempted to remind my followers in an Instagram caption that I “could literally be fucking any of their dads right now,” or to joke that the only thing I have in common with men my own age is that their dads are paying my rent, too. Such jokes are part self-satire, of course, but they also feel subversive in that they flip the script on the patriarchal dynamic that has so long informed the “Your Mom” joke. 

Is this what “gender equality” looks like in an ideal world? Probably not. But if at least one of you calls me a “fatherfucker” in the hate mail you’re probably already drafting, I’ll consider it a start.